It was a mixtape made by a Frenchman and handed to Mick Harvey in reunified Berlin that first alerted him to the oeuvre of Serge Gainsbourg.
Like the rest of us, he’d heard ‘Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)’, but the variety and depth of Gainsbourg’s genius took him aback – so much so that he set about fastidiously translating the lyrics into English and disseminating the chansons to the anglophone world with a missionary zeal.
The scope of the project he undertook was breathtaking, not to mention the attention to detail: string arrangements were lovingly rephrased but with broadly the same intentions, Anita Lane stepped into the breach as Jane Birkin…The Australian guitarist covered so much, from the well-thumbed ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ to the doggedly obscure ‘Quand Mon 6.35 Me Fait Les Yeux Doux’ (Harvey’s version is called ‘The Barrel Of My 45’) that you wonder if Mick did much else with his time during the mid-90s that didn’t involve immersing himself in all things Gainsbourg.
Between ‘95, when Intoxicated Man came out, and ‘97 when Pink Elephants dropped, Harvey covered 33 songs and wrote one (the title track of the latter with Bertrand Burgalat) and attempted a whole lot more besides that never quite made the cut. One wonders where he found the time.
“I’d left Crime And The City Solution,” he explains via a phone line from his hotel in Dortmund. “That broke up and I found I had a surprising amount of time on my hands. [Nick Cave And] The Bad Seeds took up a lot of time but there were still big openings for me to do the albums. So that’s what I did with the time.” Harvey is back in Germany with his band Ministry of Wolves playing nightly for a production of Republik Der Wölfe at the Dortmund Theatre. It’ll be no surprise to most to find that Mick has not been putting his feet up since leaving the Bad Seeds in 2011.
Intoxicated Man came out in 1995. Are you ever surprised when records you made are nearly 20 years old, or 30 years old for that matter…
The passage of time always surprises people, especially when you’re busy and you’re not really watching it go by. It’s probably more surprising that the Birthday Party stuff is over 30 years old; that feels very strange to me. Maybe you become a bit more aware of the way time passes.
Do you think English markets are more receptive to Gainsbourg and ‘foreign’ music in general now?
I wouldn’t really have any insight into that I’m afraid. I think in the last 20 years they’ve become a lot more familiar with Gainsbourg’s work and I suppose that’s partly due to my offerings, but broadly speaking I really wouldn’t know about that. I live in Australia and don’t spend a lot of time in England, but I don’t think the Australians are more receptive, no.
How did you come across Serge yourself?
Well, he’s a very well known figure. He’d had a couple of notorious hits, ‘Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)’ and what have you. I was living in Berlin and I had a French friend who made me a compilation tape of his best stuff, and that’s what really opened it up for me I guess. I think I thanked Olivier [Picot] on the record. That’s what the old mixtape used to do, you’d come across all sorts of unexpected things!
Do you speak French?
Pretty badly. I kind of do, I’ve realised, but I really can’t understand what they’re saying back to me so it’s pretty useless. If I have to sit there and explain something I can do it quite efficiently actually, but once they start talking back I’m lost. The French talk far too quickly. On the other hand, I’m fluent in German.
You say in the liner notes that you make “no excuses” should any of Serge’s double and sometimes triple entendres get lost in translation.
Yes. I mean, they’re incredibly complex at times, but I think I attempt to stay true to what’s in the lyrics. I made stringent efforts and had a more strict policy and approach than most translators would ever take. In my experience they’re often quite willing to dispense with something, and I really wasn’t willing to do that. So if occasionally – my disclaimer in the liner notes – if something’s been missed here or there then it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying really hard. I’m not going to apologise for that. I did my utmost to do them justice and I don’t think you can do any more than that.
From what I can gather you did a good job.
Yes, I think so too for the most part. There are a lot of songs that were left by the wayside that were sort of dropped in the “too hard” basket. In fact, I was surprised with how many I was pleased with the translations of. I would say I was very respectful in that department.
Is it easier to do a lesser known composition like ‘Sex Shop’ than it is doing a well known number like ‘Bonnie & Clyde’?
It depends. There’s a real oddity with ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ in that he based the lyrics on a letter Bonnie Parker wrote to the newspapers, so he actually based it on an original English text. So in many ways I felt quite at liberty to change back anything used in the original text where that song was concerned. That was just a case of checking Bonnie’s letter. There’s a version of Serge reading her letter over the music which is pretty hilarious actually. You should give that a listen, it’s pretty strange. He obviously doesn’t have a very good grasp of English (laughs).
His English was meant to be appalling.
I think probably proudly so. I’m sure he didn’t care.
He was quite an Anglophile mind you…
Yeah absolutely, but I think he stopped short of the language. I’m sure he didn’t feel any obligation speaking the language. He had an English speaking partner for the most part, so he could just let her do it.
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I was surprised you covered ‘Aux Enfants De La Chance’, or as you called it, ‘To All The Lucky Kids’. Gainsbourg’s anti-drugs song delivered when he was on his last legs always seemed to be disingenuous and above all hypocritical, but the way you sing it is quite poignant.
Was he being disingenuous? I didn’t really catch that. I think he was expressing real concern for the youth and the drug culture, which is odd given his heavy drinking and imbibing of other substances, but I’m sure he meant it quite genuinely. It might have been hypocritical but I think he was expressing a genuine concern.
Perhaps ‘deluded’ is a better word…
Yeah, I mean obviously he was in a pretty parlous state himself at that point. It’s an odd song, that’s partly what I found really interesting; that he could write a song like that and not look in the mirror. It was probably a response to some government statistics about youth and drug use and dissipation or whatever, and he was alarmed about that, because whatever he was doing at least he was being productive.
He was also in the advanced stages of alcoholism and we all know the link between alcoholism and denial.
Well yes, indeed. He was probably talking about real addictions like heroin that kind of subsume people. He wouldn’t have seen himself in the same boat at all, weirdly, but that’s one of the things that interested me about that song.
I suppose that happens with drug tribes. There are plenty of cokeheads who look down on heroin addicts.
Oh yeah, you’ll get that. Heroin addicts would certainly look down on coke fiends. “That’s not real drugs” (laughs)
A lot of the string arrangements by Bertrand Burgalat are very similar to the originals.
Many of those string arrangements are from what I referred to as ‘the golden era’ and Gainsbourg was actually doing some great work and had some great people like Jean Claude Vannier. The versions of songs really sound good as well, so I was very happy to use those. When I really liked the original music I didn’t want to change it around or destroy it. I was quite happy to copy it to some degree and do a translation.
You do a version of an old number called ‘New York USA’, and you capture that wonder of America that European writers had in the early 60’s. They could have been singing about Mars, because it wasn’t like you could just jump on a plane in the way you can now.
I think the French had a real fascination with America and the New World. They had their reservations about it too, but New York was the epitome of the New World I suppose. Parisians would see themselves as having the premier city of Europe, and then on the other side of the pond is New York City, which is equally as impressive in a different way.
‘New York USA’ was actually one of the tunes he stole wholesale from Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji’s 1959 Drums of Passion LP.
That was very common, stealing things from other people, I think we’re still all doing that. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that, because he was very much into the Caribbean or Afrobeat scene; it must have been fashionable in the early ’60s. He clearly would have been lifting that, taking things from recordings he was familiar with. It makes perfect sense to me.
Was it not a bit naughty though, and indicative of a postcolonialist attitude? He didn’t credit poor Babatunde.
That was very common at the time. Stuff wasn’t nailed down quite as permanently as it is these days, and people could claim they wrote all sorts of stuff. ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and all the rest of it… The Stones and even Led Zeppelin did a bit of that in the late sixties, just putting their name to songs. Artists would take a fairly traditional song and just put their name to it. I think in the case of that African guy it was quite specifically someone else’s [music] and in a way, percussion is hard to copyright. To identify. It’s not necessarily tonalities or chordal movements that can be identified quite so specifically.
I think I prefer your version of ‘Chanson de Slogan’ (or ‘The Song Of Slurs’) because Anita Lane isn’t singing those preposterous notes that Serge made Jane Birkin do.
It’s very rigid. I wouldn’t have them sing that bit, an instrument can play that. And put some expression into it for goodness sake!
I like the tracks where you try a different arrangement, like on ‘Lemon Incest’.
There Gainsbourg took his favourite melodic composer, Chopin, and put pretty much his most famous single melody to a disco beat, so I thought the logical thing to do was take it back to the original simple piano. There’s a perversity in that as well from my side. I think that song is so hilarious, and the lyrics – if you break them down – are actually amazing.
Did you hear Jarvis Cocker’s English version of ‘Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vein’ from the Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited collection in 2003?
No, I didn’t hear Jarvis’ version. So there’s an album of Gainsbourg songs, is there?
Pulp were clearly influenced by him, whereas it’s difficult to see how some of the other acts – like Placebo – manifested his work in theirs.
It depends what you’re trying to achieve with it. Some will get called up and asked to do a Gainsbourg song and they’ll be like, ‘Ah okay, we’ll do that.’ They’ll do it a certain way without having a position on what they’re trying to achieve. That’s what happens. You’ll get a version, some people will like it, some won’t, and it won’t have much relevance or anything to do with Gainsbourg, it’s just a separate thing. Obviously my recordings are meant to be very much connected with him and his legacy, with a view into his work generally, which is a very different starting point. Jarvis may have had the same sort of view in as I do to some degree.
On Pink Elephants, you tackle more of the monstre sacre. ‘La Javanaise’, ‘Le Poinçonneur De Lilas’…
There are probably as many sacred cows on the first album.
‘Je T’aime (Mon Non Plus)’ is on the second. There are two Histoire De Melody Nelson tracks as well…
Yeah, and ‘La Javanaise’ is a real classic I’ve discovered subsequently, and ‘Le Poinçonneur De Lilas’ is a real kind of French standard almost, but I never really knew that at the time.
Your version of ‘Le Torrey Canyon’ sounds like The Fall.
A lot of those tracks were very mid ’60s Brit rock, done in a yé-yé kind of way by Gainsbourg. They were fun to do because they were just little songs you could knock out with a band. I could do them in the style I wanted to do them in, and stay true to them. So like The Fall you say? That’s nice. I love The Fall.”
Intoxicated Man / Pink Elephants is re-released by Mute this April.
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